Jul/Aug 2023  •   Reviews & Interviews

The Guest Room

Review by Ann Skea

The Guest Room.
Tasha Sylva.
Welbeck. 2023. 401 pp.
ISBN 978 1 80279 672 8.

33-year-old woman found dead in a London park

The woman was Tess's sister, Rosie, and in her grief Tess has become obsessed with finding Rosie's killer. One way is to try and tempt him to kill her, too, so she wanders dark places like Hampstead Heath at night, watching strangers, testing them:

"I dare you."

His boots scuff louder.

"Go on. Grab me." Almost alongside. Strong aftershave on him—amaretto, over-sprayed and bitter. I fix my eyes on his. His black irises are gleaming in the tawny glow. Then, just like that, they drop away. And he's past.

As the days pass, Tess's behavior becomes increasingly irrational. She shadows Rosie's former partner, Oliver, even though (as the police explain to her in detail) he has "a cast-iron alibi." He repeatedly tells her to stop texting him. She suspects a barman who "was looking at Rosie a lot, he smiled at her;" a friendly local shop-keeper; the strange, quiet, man who lives across the road from Rosie's flat; anyone who knew or met Rosie. Luke, the downstairs neighbor who keeps calling on Tess and trying to get her to go out with him, in spite of his having a live-in girl-friend, Ivy, seems more of a nuisance than a potential killer, but she finds Ivy oddly over-friendly, and too forgiving of Luke's pursuit of her. Nothing and no-one seem normal to her anymore.

Four months have passed, and Tess does not think the police are doing enough to solve the case. She constantly phones Detective Sergeant Pettiford, offering new and increasingly dubious "leads." Pettiford is endlessly patient and understanding with her, but you can hear his growing frustration as he tries to keep her obsessive and erratic behavior in check.

Tess had always been very close to Rosie, but shortly before her death, Rosie had become increasingly disturbed, would not share her worries with Tess, and had begun to keep her at a distance. Then, on the night of Rosie's death, Tess had missed three phone calls from her, and the voicemail after the last call had broken off suddenly:

"...A loud sniff. "God, I've had a horrible evening. And I think there's some—"

Where was I? Why didn't I answer? Or call her back? Questions that have repeated so many times in my head they don't sound like questions any more.

Tess had been in bed with a man, her phone in the next room, and she had not seen the calls until the next morning. She feels if she had not missed these calls, Rosie "could still be alive."

Now, Tess has taken over Rosie's mortgage and is living in her flat, but her earnings as a translator (she is half Spanish) and her part-time job as an invigilator at the Barbican's art gallery, are not enough. And Rosie's bedroom, especially, bothers her.

I considered asking friends if they needed a room. Except I didn't want a face I knew. I didn't want someone taking root, becoming fixed.

I decided to open it up to strangers. More neutral that way, as a guest room.

At first it was hard, letting them in. Every noise and movement, every time they were in the kitchen, the bathroom, turning around to find them smiling at me—grating.

The compensation for this, however, is Tess can exercise her curiosity about her guests' possessions, secretly exploring their room when they are out. One guest had a bag of empty cheese and onion crisps packets in the wardrobe; another collected seeds; one man had a mallet.

It's not just possession, though. It's the thrill of being in here, somewhere off limits the minute I welcome a guest. The risk [they] could come back at any moment. Catch me. And what would happen if [they] did. How would I explain it? I've never needed to because I've never been caught.

Tempting fate again.

Arran is a little different. He has booked the room for four weeks while he looks for a permanent place to rent. He is tall, blonde, easy to talk to, but quiet—he moves soundlessly—and, unusually for a guest, he notices things about the flat. He also asks odd questions:

"Where have your parents gone?"

"So you're all alone here?"

Tess feels attracted to him, and there seems to be some connection between them. He makes himself at home in the flat, bakes bread, cooks vegetarian meals, but she can't quite make him out. Searching his room when he is not around, she finds a notebook with entries that intrigue her. Arran seems to have developed a passion for a young woman. He describes following her, watching her in a cafe, trying to bump into her at a Yoga class, and he describes his growing feelings for her. There are certain things about these notes familiar to Tess, and she begins to think the "you" Arran is writing about is herself.

But there is another voice in the book. The voice of someone who clearly lives very close to Tess, calls her "the Spanish Girl," and knows a great deal about her. As the book progresses, this voice becomes more sinister:

Tess has no one. Friends, family, all of them have dried up. Nobody to help her. Left with me, though she hasn't realised this yet. And I'm no puppet, no pawn on this chessboard. Forced to do things most people would find disturbing. As if they know anything. As if they could ever understand.

Nothing is clear. Tess feels danger all around her, and the tension mounts. She and Arran become close and sleep together, but his diary-like notes, which she still secretly reads, make her suspect him of seeing another woman, too. So, she shadows him. What she sees confuses her even more.

The Guest Room is a carefully constructed and compelling mystery story, and a fine study of the way grief and uncertainly can disturb the mind. The final revelation is unexpected, and the ending is realistic and satisfying.

Tasha Sylva writes well, and knows just how to keep the reader involved and guessing.